A bit more on democratic theory

Just a follow-up on my previous post… Reading the Economist over breakfast this morning (yep, that’s what I do), I was struck by this line (in an article that was actually about Ted Cruz):

Of the top two Republicans in Iowa, one is a universally recognisable type. Short on policy, long on ego and bombast, promising to redeem a nation he disparages through the force of his will, Donald Trump’s strongman shtick is familiar from Buenos Aires to Rome, inflected though it is by reality TV and the property business.

I like the observation that Trump is a “universally recognizable” type, a figure that would strike most non-Americans (e.g. particularly South Americans) as a normal feature of democratic politics. (Think also PKP in Quebec…) Indeed, in certain respects the Trump candidacy represents the normalization of American politics.

And yet, when I turn to (normative) democratic theory, I find absolutely nothing that is of any use in understanding the phenomenon, much less thinking about how a society might respond to it.… Continue reading

Retour sur le nouveau réalisme

Pour son cinquième anniversaire, le magazine d’art Zone Occupée m’a demandé de contribuer à son numéro thématique intitulé « Prospectives ». Comme je ne sais trop ce que l’avenir nous réserve—je n’ai même pas été capable de prédire le gagnant de la dernière campagne électorale fédérale!—, j’ai plutôt choisi de présenter une mouvance philosophique, le « nouveau réalisme », qui s’impose de plus en plus et dont notre monde a bien besoin. Le Devoir a publié une version abrégée du texte dans sa rubrique « Des Idées en revues », ainsi qu’une réplique d’André Baril. J’ai reçu des courriels de collègues séduits ou irrités par le nouveau réalisme, et le texte a suscité de nombreuses discussions sur Facebook. In fine, le plus réjouissant est sans aucun doute le fait qu’un petit texte portant d’abord sur des questions d’ontologie et d’épistémologie ait provoqué autant de réactions.

Quelques précisions sur la version du texte publiée dans Le Devoir.… Continue reading

40 theses against the Harper Conservatives: nos. 21-30

This summer, Catherine Lu decided to write up a list of reasons to vote against the Conservative Party of Canada in the current federal election. Over a period of 40 days, she came up with one new reason per day, which she posted to her Facebook page. In recognition of her labours, over the next few days we will republish them here:

Reason #30

When I’m planning a large party, I try to get details on things such as how many people are coming and what kinds of drinks and food they prefer, and so on. No one wants to be short on food or drink or, at my age, have too much leftover dessert. Governing a country – at municipal, regional, provincial and federal levels – also requires accurate information on what citizens need and how policies are functioning, so that government resources can be spent wisely, appropriately and efficiently.Continue reading

40 theses against the Harper Conservatives: nos. 31-40

This summer, Catherine Lu decided to write up a list of reasons to vote against the Conservative Party of Canada in the current federal election. Over a period of 40 days, she came up with one new reason per day, which she posted to her Facebook page. In recognition of her labours, over the next few days we will republish them here:


Earlier this summer on a short visit to Ottawa, I happened to see the ‘Northern Lights’ show,  a visually-stunning light display over the Parliament Buildings that tells the story of Canada to visitors of the great institutions of Canadian democracy. I was dismayed that after seeing this show, a visitor to Canada might leave thinking that relations between indigenous peoples and arriving settlers were based on ‘mutual interest’ and exhibited ‘partnership’, rather than dispossession and genocide; and that World War One was a meaningful sacrifice of Canadian lives that helped to build the nation, rather than a monumental and meaningless political catastrophe that generated irretrievable losses for thousands of families.… Continue reading

A mystery solved

Lately a road crew has been mucking around the gravel road out in front of my place. Not quite clear what they’re doing. A bit of regrading on the side, deepening the ditches:


It’s weird though, they show up maybe once a week, put in a couple of hours of work, then disappear again. They’ve been at it for around two months, and have done about a kilometer of road.  Here they’ve regraded the hill by the side of the road… not sure why. So the snowploughs can clear better?


Weird stuff. Oh look, they replaced a culvert. I guess that’s kind of useful:


All of this seems totally unnecessary. And why is it taking them so long?

Oh, right:


Conservative riding. Thanks Kellie!… Continue reading

Trudeau on Secession

So, my stint at L’actualité is over. It was terrific, but very time consuming. I promised myself that I would stay quiet this summer and focus on a book manuscript, but the urge to respond to Trudeau’s attack on Mulcair regarding the Supreme Court’s Reference on Quebec secession was too strong. I wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen. I should have added that there is another aspect of the Scottish referendum that I think should act as precedent: the agreement of both parties on the wording of the question. A question on secession should not be convoluted. The Brits and the Scots, at least with regard to the basic rules of the referendum, acted as grown ups. Our leaders should emulate them.


Ottawa CitizenContinue reading

Canadian Elections for Naifs and Cynics

A few years ago, I wrote a blogpost in which I described a blunt taxonomy carving political observers into two types.  I suggested that everyone falls somewhere on the line (which is a continuum) between political naifs, at one extreme, and politicl cynics, at the other. My central claim was that naifs believe that politics is fundamentally about devising and implementing good policy. Cynics believe that it is about acquiring and exercising political power.

While virtually no one is a pure cynic or unalloyed naif, I think there is no doubt that the distinction does articulate two clear approaches to understanding how politics does, or ought to, function. I also think that understanding whether a given columnist is coming at things from one side or the other can be a useful heuristic for understanding the argument that is being made.

At any rate, the original post gets tweeted and mentioned on social media fairly regularly by people whose work I respect and admire, so it suggests to me that I’m not the only one who finds the schema useful.… Continue reading

Climate change syllabus

I’m teaching environmental ethics for the first time this coming fall, focusing on climate change. This is a third-year course, which has our second-year general environmental ethics course as a prerequisite. So I’m not obliged to cover the basics. I’ll be using Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach’s book, Climate Change Justice, as more-or-less the textbook, with supplementary readings as I go along. Not everything I assign, I should add, is stuff I agree with, some is just to provoke discussion. Also, it’s not really environmental “ethics” so much as environmental “justice” & “policy.”

Anyhow, any suggestions would be welcome — I haven’t read more than a fraction of the literature that’s out there (beyond the usual suspects Shue, Gardiner, Broome, McKinnon, Moellendorf, etc.), so if I’m missing good stuff let me know. Also, the syllabus may not make sense for those who have not read Posner & Weisbach, because my presentation of topics really tracks their discussion, which seems to me quite well organized.… Continue reading

Is this some kind of a joke?

One of the problems that many students encounter, when reading older philosophy texts, is that they don’t get any of the jokes. I was thinking about this with regard to my recent “normative sociology” post, a term that comes from a joke that Robert Nozick made in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I actually missed this the first time I read it through as well, just because one doesn’t expect there to be jokes in serious works of philosophy. (It is my colleague, Arthur Ripstein, who pointed it out to me.)

The “not getting the jokes” problem becomes even worse once a book is more than a century old. Apart from the fact that both humour and writing styles change, making it harder to tell when someone is joking, the mere fact that a book is old seems to lead people to assume that it must be entirely serious throughout.… Continue reading

Loose ends

Apologies for neglect of the blog for the past month or so. I’ve been busy writing a pile of academic stuff. For those interested, I have a review in this month’s Literary Review of CanadaTrading Fair: The Slippery Slope of Industry Self-Regulation

I also wrote an academic piece on the 2008 financial crisis (yes, we are still picking over the bones), which is now on my academia site: Mistakes Were Made: The Role of Catallactic Bias in the Financial Crisis. This “catallactic bias” thing is a meme that I’m trying to make happen, so far without much success. The reference is to the term “catallaxy,” used by von Mises and Hayek to describe market orders. So if you take that stuff too seriously, you wind up suffering from catallactic bias… get it?

Finally, I gave a talk at Dartmouth last week, called “On the Scalability of Cooperative Structures,” that I’m really happy with, but it won’t be in the “working paper” stage for a while still.… Continue reading